Updated: Mar 11, 2022
This conversation is part of our digital series 'Political Partitions: Human Stories'.
A conversation between artist and social activist Salima Hashmi—who is also the daughter of renowned Progressive Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz—and Kavita Panjabi, a university teacher who has shared her love of Faiz’s poetry with her Comparative Literature students for several years now. Salima recounts personal anecdotes of her father, especially in relation to his experiences of the two partitions of 1947 and 1971, and reads his poems in Urdu. Kavita reads them in English translation and also highlights the lasting power of his poetry, discussing how it has cut through mainstream political hostilities and enabled South Asians to see the poignant human face of the partitions through his eyes. The idea is to try to understand Faiz and his poetry in relation to his times and to retrieve, however briefly, the values and passions that underlined his vision. Salima also shares some rare photographs of Faiz and his ethos to add a rich visual dimension to this conversation. Some of the poems discussed are 'Subh e azadi', 'Dhaka se wapsi par' and of course the much loved ‘Hum dekhenge’.
Below is a transcription of the same. Available as a downloadable pdf here:
Kavita Panjabi. Faiz has been very special for many of us—he is one of the most dearly loved, respected and quoted poets of this subcontinent, not just in Urdu but in any language. His poems on the partitions of both 1947 and 1971 have become the hallmarks of lived expressions of sorrow about divisions and separations of a people who have shared a common history since antiquity. In 1984, the year both Faiz sahab and Amrita Pritam died (I must have been in college), I remember reading a piece on both of them that quoted Faiz sahab saying, ‘jashn manao doston ki bahaar aayi hai, zakhm khil chuke hain, phul khile na khile’ (Let’s celebrate friends because the Spring has come, the wounds have blossomed whether the flowers do or not). The depth with which that was written communicated to me even then how dearly loved Faiz was. We say that Faiz is our poet too. We may be very reluctant to share Tagore with Bangladesh—despite the fact that their national anthem was written by Tagore—but many of us would say ‘nahi nahi, Faiz sahab hamare bhi hain’. That I think is the joy of continuities of culture, of the poets we love across nation states. Since this whole series is on the Partition, I think this is one of the most wonderful people we could begin with.
Faiz sahab was one of the leading lights of the Progressive Writers’ Movement. It was during his college years that he met M.N. Roy and Muzaffar Ahmad, who drew him into Left politics, and the Progressive Writers’ Association. He went on to become one of the most moving voices of the Left, of the Progressive Writers’ Movement in the subcontinent. He was an editor, writer, a visionary, trade union leader, a teacher; he was even an army officer at a certain point. But these are all the ways in which we have seen him from the outside. We have read his poetry and loved his writings. We have only known of him but you have known him. So, I want to start by asking you—in what ways did you know him as a father, a poet, a visionary in terms of his politics and values?
Salima Hashmi. One is always slightly taken aback when asked this question, primarily because there were so many aspects to my father. But for me, he was a friend. I know that sounds like a cliché but actually he never set himself up as the patriarch of the home. Our home had a strong mother and we are two sisters. My father was a shy person, not given to pontification at all, and surprisingly he never set himself up as a mentor. Sometimes, I regret that now and wonder whether there was a missed opportunity there. He had so many aspects to his personality but at home, he was this quiet presence, never took himself too seriously. Very few people associate a sense of humour with him but he was very witty and normally liked to make himself the butt of his own humour. People always ask, what were the rules in the household and the values you imbibed? It was never anything so laid down. Things came in a very gentle way and we imbibed certain values. When he was asked in the context of his beliefs, he wrote that basically there is only one value: humanism. All other values—love of peace, freedom, social justice, compassion, alleviation of human suffering, self-realization, adoration of goodness and beauty—flow from it. And that was the kind of person he was. Very understated. I don’t think I ever saw him angry, which is pretty amazing considering the kind of life he led, often at the receiving end of a great deal of stuff. But he always took it in his stride with a bit of a smile. I remember, in one of his letters to my mother from jail, he wrote that he woke up exceptionally early one morning and washed and shaved. When his fellow prisoners, who were astonished to see him, asked him whether the governor had invited him for breakfast or maybe Rita Hayworth was waiting for him in the visitor’s room, he said, ‘Actually, I am making only one of my periodical attempts at self-reform.’ So he had this waspish sense of humour. Once, when my mother was in Shimla and he was in Delhi, way back in the ’40s, he wrote to her,
There was a rather nice surprise today, a parcel arrived in short for 200 rupees, and it suddenly turned up bearing some Bombay address, and inside was an expensive looking watch and a letter by Ms. Jagdan Bai [the famous film producer and mother of Nargis] saying that she wanted a poem of mine for her film, saying that she wanted only three lines and she dare not offer me money, the verses being invaluable of course, so would I kindly accept this present.
So he wrote that there was nothing for it but to accept the present but he’d much rather she’d made it money. This was the time when they (my parents) were an impoverished couple. So, over a lifetime in which there were many separations, and also many moments of great joy and celebration, he was always a very gentle presence and that is the way I call upon him today, through his poetry.
Once a very dear friend of mine asked how I feel when people sing his poetry. I said, I feel just like you. Sometimes when I am lost I go to the poetry for guidance. And I suppose that is the greatest gift but that is not a gift only to a daughter, it is a gift to all of us.
KP. You were telling me about a very special letter that he wrote to your mother from jail in which he talked about what poetry and writing meant to him. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
SH. He wrote to her from jail, and his poems would come in his letters and my mother would place them in various magazines—that was a gift because from that extra money we would have little enjoyments like getting a new pair of shoes or going to the cinema, which we would otherwise not have. He writes to her in 1952:
For the last few days, I have been completely wrapped up writing or trying to write. I have already sent one ghazal to Rau, and I am particularly pleased with this one. And I don’t mind telling you, borrowing a phrase from Ajit, that nobody else can write like this today. This is not because of vanity regarding talent—mine is very limited, and so many others possess more talent than I—it is merely a question of the capacity of taking pains, particularly in descriptive writing where the temptation to follow the line of least resistance and accept any cliché and any approximation to the image in your mind. The reader of course can never tell how much effort has gone into each word, the final word that emerges after innumerable mental rejections. I am sure you are laughing now because I am preening myself so much. But I must do it sometimes. How does one write? I really don’t know how one writes. Sometimes, while reading a book, a phrase or a sentence, an image or a rhyme sticks in your mind and ultimately ends up as a poem. At times, when listening to music, a certain note or a certain rhythmic pattern leaves a deep impression, suddenly a line comes to mind. A ghazal first requires the emergence of a rhyming scheme in one’s consciousness—a line comes first but one builds on it. For a nazm, one has to think about the pattern of the poem—it is just like an artisan at work, it has to be built, you have to get the basic image in sharp focus, you have to match the text, the music has to be right, no false notes. At times the experience of a certain event is so sudden and intense that the entire poem is born immediately. At other times, it can take months.
KP. This reminds me of the major debates within the Progressive Writers’ Movement about Art for a purpose versus Art for Art’s sake and the whole question of Beauty. I know that Faiz sahab and Premchand would have known each other closely because in 1936 when Premchand was the President, Faiz sahab was the Secretary of the Progressive Writers’ Movement. One of the things that amazes me about the Progressive Writer’s Movement even now is the way Premchand redefined the question of Beauty. At his very first talk, which became the manifesto, he said that if you cannot see the beauty in the body of the figure of a woman labouring in the fields with her child lying there next to her, and if you can’t understand what the sweat on her body is about, you cannot understand the determination, the struggle, the beauty of the spirit—then you don’t understand what beauty is. In that one fell swoop, he brought together art, beauty and purpose. He didn’t talk about the word or language, or chiseling words like Faiz sahab did. He would write saying that if your content is great and simple, then you would have great stuff. Faiz sahab knew differently, especially because he was writing poetry. There was a big debate in Bengal among writers like Bishnu De and others about what do we do with language. That is why I think Agyeye also moved on and began Prayogvaad [Experimentalism] after that because he knew that one had to work with language to express the new times. One of the most wonderful ways in which Faiz did that, not just in language but also in form, was the way in which he brought in Sufi imagery into his poetry to counter those who were the religious Right. From his anti-imperialist politics, his politics on workers’ rights, to his take on independence, on Partition, and then on Bangladesh, he has written poems that cover the entire range, along with his dramatic poems. I think it would be nice to begin today’s session, with a poem that for us is emblematic of Faiz’s investment and complete commitment to freedom, dignity and humanity, as you said earlier. So could I request you to read ‘Bol’, please.
SH. Tariq Ali always said that when he was a student at Government College, this was his rallying cry when he was commandeering all the students to come together to go to a jalsa.
bol ki lab āzād haiñ tere
bol zabāñ ab tak terī hai
terā sutvāñ jism hai terā
bol ki jaañ ab tak terī hai
dekh ki āhan-gar kī dukāñ meñ
tund haiñ sho.ale surḳh hai aahan
khulne lage qufloñ ke dahāne
phailā har ik zanjīr kā dāman
bol ye thodā vaqt bahut hai
jism o zabāñ kī maut se pahle
bol ki sach zinda hai ab tak
bol jo kuchh kahnā hai kah le
Nuskha Hai Wafa (Pg. 81) via Rekhta.org
(available at: https://www.rekhta.org/nazms/bol-bol-ki-lab-aazaad-hain-tere-faiz-ahmad-faiz-nazms)
KP. I will read it in English although we can’t quite capture Urdu in English.
This is Victor G. Kiernan’s translation.
Speak, for your lips are free;
Speak, for your tongue is still yours,
Your upright body is yours—
Speak, your life is still yours.
See how in the blacksmith’s shop,
The flames are hot, the iron is red,
Mouths of locks have begun to open,
Each chain’s skirt has spread wide.
Speak, this little time is plenty
Before the death of body and tongue:
Speak for truth is still alive—
Speak, say whatever is to be said.
I am also reminded of a wonderful series of short films against domestic violence made by Shabnam Virmani. They were one-minute films and the whole series was called Bol, and it was the same impetus to speak up for human dignity, for freedom, that she brought into the world of women who had been subjected to domestic violence. It was among the most spirited series I have seen on something like that, and one of the most beautiful examples of what poetry can do for feminist politics.
While we know Faiz sahab has done some amazing work on the Partition, could you tell us about the years before and leading up to the Partition? What would he share with all of you, in terms of his thoughts on the way this land was being divided, given that he taught at Amritsar and would go across what are now called borders, living in both sides of this country?
SH. In a very nice talk that he gave towards the end of his life in Islamabad to a group of people from different countries, he spoke about those early years and how he got the sensibility which he did. He himself said,
I started gradually becoming a poet—two or three things determined that. First of all, before I finished my first degree my father died and suddenly I discovered that from grandees and the rich men of town, we became paupers because he had left bigger debts than the property. That was one factor that had a great impact on myself and my family. Second came the Great Depression. As a result, the prices of agriculture went rock bottom—the countryside became impoverished and the little income that we had from the land also stopped. The Great Depression had great impact politically and personally, not only on myself but also on whole communities, particularly the Muslims.
Then there was another reason, and he talks about falling in love—his first love who was actually the girl next door. We have several letters which he wrote to my mother just before Partition. I was four years old, we had gone to stay in Srinagar for the summer and my English grandparents had come. Dr. Tasir [my aunt’s husband], who was the Principal of the Boys’ College in Srinagar, was spending the summer there. My father came to visit and he had to go back because he had started the Pakistan Times in Lahore, which was before Pakistan actually happened. He writes to my mother, very worried for us, saying:
The expected disturbances fortunately didn’t materialize then, but there has been a new flare up in the last two days involving about 13 deaths—these were however individual cases, no general panic. But to make up for this, there has been a terrible fresh outbreak in Amritsar, and the conditions there I am told are indescribable. The Radcliffe Award came up and you must have seen it—the Muslims have got their Pakistan, the Hindus and Sikhs their divided Punjab and Bengal. But I am yet to meet a person—Muslim, Hindu or Sikh—who feels enthusiastic about the future. I can’t think of any country whose people felt so miserable on the eve of freedom and liberation. Both morally and politically, the British could not have hoped for a greater triumph.
So he is very clear about what led to this carnage, and then he writes again to my mother when he has arrived back from Srinagar. He writes:
Darling, arrived here safely in Lahore. For once, safety has some meaning. For if I had been a Hindu or a Sikh, I would have never got beyond halfway. The situation in the West however has no comparison with what happened in the East. It seemed so unreal and faraway as long as I was in Srinagar. But it has all come back and it is far worse than anything I had feared and imagined—from early mornings till late evenings, one hears nothing but tales of horror. And even though one tries to shut one’s mind and ears tight against it, there is no escape from the horror and tragedy that surrounds one from every side. To be alone and ponder over it all is such an unbearable pain and one has conceived the horror of being alone with one’s thoughts. It is difficult to see a path or a light in the gloom but one has to maintain one’s reason and one’s courage. And that I shall certainly maintain.’
Many years later, I said to my father that you wrote just one poem on Partition—‘Subh-e-azadi’. He said, ‘yes, because we could not cope.’ I have quoted that response many times when asked about the effect on him because he wrote that ‘I am glad you are not here in Lahore. It is peaceful now but it resembles more a deserted wilderness than the populated city.’ I think the event and what it brought with it was larger than individuals and certainly, Faiz was among one of those who was unable to quite comprehend what had overtaken them. This was something which is brought up again and again: Why were there not enough paintings? Yes, there were a few short stories, yes, Manto wrote a couple; but in terms of comparing it with the Second World War—think of the number of films, writing, novels and the rest of it—this was huge. When I talked to him about what the outcome was of writings (on the Partition), he agreed that it could not grapple with what people had suffered. I think the fact that today we keep going back to the Partition stories is perhaps because the people’s stories were never told. There were just the official accounts. I think it is only now when we are collecting these stories that we are trying for some closure. This was Faiz’s only attempt at closure and interestingly that poem is still relevant it seems to be about today sometimes, and is oft quoted on both sides of the border. So perhaps it was a poem for all times—it was not subh-e-azadi, it was subh-e-zindagi.
KP. You mentioned WWII in comparison and how there was so much of a difference. Could this numbing, being reduced to silence, also have to do with the fact that our people did this to each other? If you look at the Nazi period there was the oppressor and the oppressed. If you look at WWII also, there were nations against each other. But here we were one people, and we turned on each other.
SH. The fact that we are still capable of it is worrying. So should we read ‘Subh-e-azadi’?
ye daaġh daaġh ujālā ye shab-gazīda sahar
vo intizār thā jis kā ye vo sahar to nahīñ
ye vo sahar to nahīñ jis kī aarzū le kar
chale the yaar ki mil jā.egī kahīñ na kahīñ
falak ke dasht meñ tāroñ kī āḳhirī manzil
kahīñ to hogā shab-e-sust-mauj kā sāhil
kahīñ to jā ke rukegā safīna-e-ġham dil
javāñ lahū kī pur-asrār shāh-rāhoñ se
chale jo yaar to dāman pe kitne haath pade
dayār-e-husn kī be-sabr ḳhvāb-gāhoñ se
pukārtī rahīñ bāheñ badan bulāte rahe
bahut aziiz thī lekin ruḳh-e-sahar kī lagan
bahut qarīñ thā hasīnan-e-nūr kā dāman
subuk subuk thī tamannā dabī dabī thī thakan
sunā hai ho bhī chukā hai firāq-e-zulmat-o-nūr
sunā hai ho bhī chukā hai visāl-e-manzil-o-gām
badal chukā hai bahut ahl-e-dard kā dastūr
nashāt-e-vasl halāl o azāb-e-hijr harām
jigar kī aag nazar kī umañg dil kī jalan
kisī pe chāra-e-hijrāñ kā kuchh asar hī nahīñ
kahāñ se aaī nigār-e-sabā kidhar ko gaī
abhī charāġh-e-sar-e-rah ko kuchh ḳhabar hī nahīñ
abhī girānī-e-shab meñ kamī nahīñ aa.ī
najāt-e-dīda-o-dil kī ghadī nahīñ aaī
chale-chalo ki vo manzil abhī nahīñ aaī
Nuskha Hai Wafa (Pg. 116) via Rekhta.org
(available at: https://www.rekhta.org/nazms/subh-e-aazaadii-august-47-ye-daag
I would like to quote my friend, Dr. Carla Petievich on this one. She said a new purpose in poetry was born and I think the Progressive Writers’ Movement is really responsible for that because in this poem, which is neither entirely narrative nor entirely lyrical, it is a kind of a combination because you have conventional imagery and the poet who is the lover also is the citizen. That is what the poem does in personifying the feelings of those who suffered the trauma which accompanied the fervour of independence. The ‘beloved’ is the people and it is a new concept in a sense. The poet is demanding that the nation take their destiny to their culmination—the dawn was a false one.
KP. The forties were marked with a unique coming together of Eros and Politics. Faiz brought the two together and he was the first one to do it. He was not the only one to do it—this also happened in the Tebhaga movement among peasant women in Bengal who would talk about ‘hum prem ki zameen ki khoj mein hain’ and the love of the people becomes the ground for the love between two beloveds also. I think what is so beautiful about this poem is that he takes that imagery forward—that coming together of eros and politics and here it is the dawn of freedom that becomes the personified Beloved. I have chosen Agha Shahid Ali’s translation to read out from because I think he is the most sensitive among all translators to this imagery of freedom and the dawn as beloved and how no other temptations could keep them away from the lure of freedom and the power of dawn at that time.
These tarnished rays, this night-smudged light—
This is not that Dawn for which, ravished with freedom,
we had set out in sheer longing,
so sure that somewhere in its desert the sky harbored
a final haven for the stars, and we would find it.
We had no doubt that night’s vagrant wave would stray
towards the shore,
that the heart rocked with sorrow would at last reach its port.
Friends, our blood shaped its own mysterious roads.
When hands tugged at our sleeves, enticing us to stay,
and from wondrous chambers Sirens cried out
with their beguiling arms, with their bare bodies,
our eyes remained fixed on that beckoning Dawn,
forever vivid in her muslins of transparent light.
Our blood was young — what could hold us back?
Now listen to the terrible rampant lie:
Light has forever been severed from the Dark;
our feet, it is heard, are now one with their goal.
See our leaders polish their manner clean of our suffering:
Indeed, we must confess only to bliss;
we must surrender any utterance for the Beloved — all yearning
But the heart, the eye, the yet deeper heart —
Still ablaze for the Beloved, their turmoil shines.
In the lantern by the road the flame is stalled for news:
Did the morning breeze ever come? Where has it gone?
Night weighs us down, it still weighs us down.
Friends, come away from this false light. Come, we must
search for that promised Dawn.
I think that is the resonance of this poem—we are still searching for that promised dawn. That is why it is still so powerful.
Before talking about other things—there was also a beautifully romantic Faiz. There is this other poem that we were talking about, ‘Do Ishq’, which is as much a romantic poem as it is about our two lands. It will be very nice if we can read that because it is, in a very different vein, hopeful in many ways. But it also gives us access to that more clearly romantic Faiz in whom one could see all the lyricism, the beauty.
SH. One must remember that ‘Do Ishq’ ['Two loves'] was written in jail at a time of great separation. Naomi Lazard, the American poet who also translated Faiz, once asked him what the true subject of poetry is, to which he said, it was the loss of the Beloved. I think that in a sense stands good for all art maybe. In the first part, he is eulogizing the beauty of his Beloved. I remember when we went to visit him in jail, he was explaining this poem to my mother—he had just written it, he was very excited. He was explaining the phrases in which he describes the beloved—for instance, when the beloved is walking, her walk is like quicksilver, and her beauty is like the sun emerging. We (Kavita and I) decided that we will read the part where he is talking about the separation.
[ . . .] phir dekhe haiñ vo hijr ke tapte hue din bhī
jab fikr-e-dil-o-jāñ meñ fuġhāñ bhuul gaī hai
har shab vo siyah bojh ki dil baith gayā hai
har sub.h kī lau tiir sī siine meñ lagī hai
tanhā.ī meñ kyā kyā na tujhe yaad kiyā hai
kyā kyā na dil-e-zār ne dhūñdī haiñ panāheñ
āñkhoñ se lagāyā hai kabhī dast-e-sabā ko
Daalī haiñ kabhī gardan-e-mahtāb meñ bāheñ
chāhā hai isī rañg meñ lailā-e-vatan ko
tadpā hai isī taur se dil us kī lagan meñ
Dhūñdī hai yūñhī shauq ne āsāish-e-manzil
ruḳhsār ke ḳham meñ kabhī kākul kī shikan meñ
us jān-e-jahāñ ko bhī yūñhī qalb-o-nazar ne
hañs hañs ke sadā dī kabhī ro ro ke pukārā
puure kiye sab harf-e-tamannā ke taqāze
har dard ko ujyālā har ik ġham ko sañvārā
vāpas nahīñ pherā koī farmān junūñ kā
And then the last two lines, which talk about both the loves:
us ishq na us ishq pe nādim hai magar dil
har daaġh hai is dil meñ ba-juz-dāġh-e-nadāmat
Nuskha Hai Wafa (Pg. 143), via Rekhta.org
( available at https://www.rekhta.org/nazms/do-ishq-1-faiz-ahmad-faiz-nazms)
KP. I think I will go directly on to the English translation from there, and start exactly from where you did. The ease with which he moves from romantic love to questions of land and belonging, is amazing.
And there are memories too of separation
When the churning of the soul bereft one of all words
Each night, like the grey weight to make the heart sink
Each day, like a shaft of light to pierce the breast
And how we thought of you
And you were not there,
And the troubled, turbulent heart sought solace everywhere
Felt the fingers of the wind, and kissed them with the eyes,
Saw the gentle moonlight and enfolded it with the arms
And that is how we love this too, this land.
And yet we have cherished this love, and this love too
For the heart bears every wound except the wound of regret.
It is one of those poems that really keeps you going.
SH. It is one of my favourites. If you think of the circumstances in which it was written . . . if you look at the companion letters that he wrote when he was trying to console my mother—this for example was written on 25 March 1952, where he says:
Your last letter sounded very depressed and I was grieved to read it. I know you have cause enough to be spiritless and discouraged, as you say. But one has to fight against these blues for sheer self-preservation. You just cannot afford to be dispirited in an uneven fight. One can indulge in it only when things are going well. This may be a rather unrealistic paradox, but it has to be so. It is not enough to keep struggling, but to do so in good cheer without too much self-pity. Otherwise you’ll increase the odds against you and make the struggle much tougher than it is. Sitting here, there is nothing else I can do to help and comfort you but send such smug and impractical advice, which you will perhaps only find irritating.
But then he goes on to kind of explain to her what he believes. He says,
I think pain and unhappiness are distinct and different things and it is possible to go on suffering pain without being really unhappy. Pain is something external, something that comes from without, an ephemeral accident like a physical ailment, like our present separation, like the death of a brother. [his brother died when he was in jail.] Unhappiness on the other hand, although produced by pain, is something within yourself which grows, develops and envelops you if you allow it and do not watch out. Pain no one can avoid, but unhappiness you can. Perhaps I am becoming pedantic again, so I should leave it.
KP. This was really moving and beautiful, especially in our times. Why did he go to jail and where did he go into self-exile after that?
SH. He went to jail I suppose like most people who have the bad habit of speaking out and speaking the truth, which is never comfortable in any dispensation—I’m beginning to think in any country of the world. But this was known as the famous Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case and it was basically sedition—a plot to overthrow the country. The trial lasted two and a half years, he was sentenced to four years after two years. It was discovered that the law under which they were tried was null and void. So, they applied for habeas corpus and they came out. Then he went on to work in the Arts Council and so on. Then came the first military dictatorship of General Ayub Khan, so back again he went, together with writers, intellectuals, journalists and labour leaders. The first incarceration was much longer of course, four and a half, almost five years. The second was shorter. After that, he decided to go abroad for the first few years, then came back. Once he said to me, towards the end of his life, what is this, you’ve been doing the same job all your life. It was my teaching and it was something I’d committed myself to at NCA. Then he said, I never did anything for more than five years—five years I taught, five years in journalism, five years I was in the Army, five years I was doing Arts Council work, five years I went to jail. I said to him, but poetry . . . poetry you did all your life. That is how he ended up in Beirut in the last years of his life. So, there were many separations.
KP. He wrote a huge number of his poems while he was in jail, right?
SH. Yes, his two major volumes came out during his four and a half years in jail. People say that we have to kind of thank the rulers because they gave us a lot in Urdu poetry. Then he also said that being in jail is like being in love because all of your senses are so finely tuned—trust my father to think of a positive aspect to being behind bars!
KP. This was in the 50s, then he gets the Lenin Peace Prize in the 60s, right? He’s been travelling to Russia? The Afro–Asian writers . . .
SH. He was very dedicated to the idea of Afro–Asian writers’ unity. Before that, in India they set up the Asian Writers’ Forum which expanded to become the Afro–Asian Writers’ Forum. It brought him into contact with writers from parts of the world like Africa, just coming out from under the colonial yoke. It really expanded his canvas in terms of writing, as well as personal contacts and friendships.
KP. But tell me, in the 50s and 60s he wasn’t functioning alone. He was part of a community, a society, a politics . . . so what was the politics? Because this was the time the Left gets banned in Pakistan, right? So what is the context within which he is functioning, who are the people who are his friends, that he is working with within Pakistan?
SH. Leftists never had a good time (laughs). I think he was really close to the Labour Movement—he’d always been that since 1948 when he helped to organize the Postal Workers’ Union and was it’s chair. There was also his work with Trade Unions when he was in Karachi in the 60s. He set up the Fishermen’s Collective in Karachi. Many years later when I was in Karachi to do something and I was at the harbour, these fishermen came up to me and they said that Faiz sahab made the Cooperative and now it’s become a huge body. So, he had a very quiet knack for bringing people together for their common interests. He worked on the Progressive Writers’ Union in Pakistan also, bringing writers together; he was very close to the Labour leaders, the Labour Movement in Pakistan; he was also close to the students’ movement. He had a knack for bringing, or at least attempting to bring warring factions together.
KP. You know, there was this special quality to the 60s and 70s I think, that produced poets like Faiz, like Neruda. I also remember a story about Neruda where he says he was talking to a huge group of peasants, and after he finished talking to them they began clamouring for him to read his poetry. And he said, poetry, what do you know about my poetry? And they actually began throwing first lines of his poems back at him and it’s such a wonderful testament to the fact that poetry and politics came together in such a way that in countries where people were not very literate too, poetry was still on their lips because of the kind of revolutionary movements that were there in our subcontinent at that point of time.
So, Faiz was also nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature?
SH. Yes, he was one of the nominees. I think the time was not right, he was too close to Palestine (laughs). He always had a knack for being on the ‘wrong’ side you know . . .
KP. Tell us what his role was in Palestine and what his relationship with Arafat was at that time.
SH. When he went into exile during Zia ul Haq’s time, he was able to go to Beirut because that was where practically all the exiles from all of the Middle East were hiding out. So my father fit right in. In the image that you see, it is actually the inauguration of the magazine he was editing, The Lotus. Yasser Arafat inaugurated it. You see Muin Bseiso, the Palestinian poet.
I was there for a short while in the summer of ’89. I saw that people like Mahmoud Darwish, Adonis would come there. Edward Said was around, Iqbal Ahmed too when passing through Beirut. But there’s no doubt that the Palestinian revolution was Faiz’s last love. He found in it a cause very close to his heart. He loved the Palestinian people and felt that this was a great wrong that had been done. He wrote an anthem for them. After the Israeli invasion, the anthem was played over and over again from Radio Beirut: ‘Hum jeetenge. Haqqa, hum jeetenge’. He wrote a poem for Beirut, he wrote a lullaby for the Palestinian child. I think his heart was very close to them. About the circumstances under which he had to flee from Beirut after the Israelis had invaded, he wrote to my mother describing how he came in this car with two friends and they offered to take him through. He first asked permission from the Palestinians because he said, I didn’t want to leave them behind. He writes, ‘Of course the heart missed a beat at every philanderous check post’. They were going to Damascus from Beirut. He said, ‘After I arrived in this posh hotel, I almost felt as though I had risen from the dead.’ So he’s talking about how the Pakistani ambassador asked him to leave earlier. He writes in the letter, ‘I could have done the same but my heart didn’t agree to let this side down.’ So he was deeply committed to the Palestinian struggle for a homeland.
KP. I think what was wonderful about him was that he was as much at home in Beirut, in Palestine, as he was across the subcontinent. He visited India quite a few times too. We have photographs that you have shared with us—at his first ever telecast for the Indian television, at a mushaira with Dr. Rajendra Prasad—I was surprised to see that one. It’s a lovely photograph with Dr. Rajendra Prasad sitting on the dais—I had no idea that Faiz and Rajendra Prasad had shared a dais where he was reciting his poetry. I know he was good friends with Bangladeshi artists, writers too, but what I am reminded of here is the second partition we were going to talk about, of 1971. I’d like to share a bit about how, as an Indian, I began to understand what the power of the feelings was, that has very rarely surfaced in our histories . . . the power of the feelings across Pakistan and Bangladesh which we as Indians got to know at a seminar on the thirtieth anniversary of the genocide in Bangladesh, at the Women Studies seminar Nighat had organized at ASR in Lahore. I remember that whole morning was dedicated to Bangladesh. I remember Nighat Said Khan telling us about how many of you had been distressed when you began to hear about the mass rapes of women in Bangladesh and the women’s movement’s demand that the Army apologize to the women of Bangladesh. Of course none of our Armies do that. But I think what was very beautiful was the way in which the women’s movement of Pakistan reached out to the women of Bangladesh but before that, I also remember hearing about the three kinds of silences that Pakistan was labouring under at that point in time. One was that there was no news of what was happening; two was those who did get some news about what was happening in the emergent Bangladesh at that time were quiet about it, they didn’t want to talk about it; and the third was the kind that Faiz sahab experienced—there were progressives who had come together, who had signed in protest, and Faiz sahab went out himself in complete supplication to Bangladesh and wrote that amazing poem (‘Dhaka se wapsi par’) when he came back. But how completely devastating it must have been to go to a part of your own country, your own land, and realize that there were barriers up already that you could not communicate across. The third kind of silence was this, which he comes back and writes: ‘Ankahi reh gayi woh baat unse jo kehne gaye thhe Faiz’. That was the first time I heard this poem with so much attention and I remember, it was a very charged moment. It was the thirtieth anniversary of the genocide and all of you who had been feeling so devastated, sharing this story with us, and also the knowledge that it was the women’s movement of Pakistan that reached out together with the women’s movement in India, to the Bangladeshi friends, and that in a way was the beginning of the South Asian women’s movement. All our bondings across—that to me was such a beautiful moment in terms of how what poets do can transform the world and the future.
Would you please read this poem?
SH. It’s always the women, isn’t it? It’s always the women who pay in conflict and it’s always the women who are the first to reach out. This poem I remember, my father when he came back from Dhaka came straight to our house. He was always very modest, self-deprecating about his writing – he said, thodi si took-bandi ki hai, and then he read it.
ham ki Thahre ajnabī itnī mudārātoñ ke
phir baneñge āshnā kitnī mulāqātoñ ke
kab nazar meñ aa.egī be-dāġh sabze kī bahār
ḳhuun ke dhabbe dhuleñge kitnī barsātoñ ke
the bahut bedard lamhe ḳhatm-e-dard-e-ishq ke
thiiñ bahut be-mehr sub.heñ mehrbāñ rātoñ ke
dil to chāhā par shikast-e-dil ne mohlat hī na dī
kuchh gile shikve bhī kar lete munājātoñ ke
un se jo kahne ga.e the 'faiz' jaañ sadqe kiye
an-kahī hī rah ga.ī vo baat sab bātoñ ke
Book : Nuskha Hai Wafa (Pg. 538) via rekhta.org
KP. (Reads her English translation)
Dhaka se wapsi par
After so many nights of intensity, we stand strangers now
How many meetings will it take for us to be intimate again?
When will we glimpse again a spring of untainted green?
How many rains will it take to wash off the stains of blood?
The heart desired it but crushed, was left no chance
After entreaties, if only we could have quarrelled once again
Relentless were the moments that ended the pain of love
Pitiless the dawns after nights of grace
What you’d gone to say to them, Faiz, with your life as offering
still remained unspoken, after all had been said.
I remember, Nighat had also played the song (by Nayyara Noor) based on this poem at one point, and all of us stood up instinctively: Farida, Uma and Urvashi—who are here today, were there; I remember how all of us held hands, women from across the subcontinent. It was the closest I had ever got to experiencing an anthem for the whole subcontinent. It was one of the most magical, powerful moments that any of us had experienced in terms of our relations with each other across the borders. And it is the power of poetry in so many ways that forges these moments, these bondings in that sense.
Would you tell us a little bit more about what Faiz sahab felt, said about 1971?
SH. I was at a seminar during his centenary in Delhi and Dr. Aijaz Ahmad put it all in one line: ‘I think 1971 caused Faiz deeper anguish than 1947.’ And I think that is probably true. As you said earlier, to feel that a part of you has been ripped away is a hard thing. My father had very great friendships (in Bangladesh). When he came back that evening he talked about his dearest friend, the great painter Zainul Abedin. Zain uncle lived in our house whenever he came to Lahore . . . .
KP. He painted the Constitution of Bangladesh and he’d done amazing paintings of the famine in Bengal also.
SH. Abba was at the hotel and asked for him to come and meet him, and Abba very sadly said, Zain wouldn’t come to my room, he said he would meet me in the lobby.
KP. You know, talking about the way poetry connects us . . .
SH. In recent times, it’s been connecting us like anything!
KP. Absolutely, hum dekhenge.
SH.(Laughs) ‘Hum dekhenge’.
KP. The first time I heard this song sung spontaneously by friends around was in Lahore. It was sung by many of our feminist friends there in someone’s home. It was during the same seminar we were talking about. I think people had been upset over certain things that were happening there and it was this sudden burst of this spirit of freedom and they began singing ‘Hum dekhenge’ and that’s when I realized how this song was so much a part of lived culture. It was not a song of the late 70s, it was not a song of ’86, it was very much a part of the 90s at that point of time. Then I remember, in 2002 in Bombay when the World Social Forum was held, this was the closing song. Of course, of late we’ve heard so much about this with IIT banning the song, talking about how it is anti–Hindu, iconoclastic against Hindus, etc. Fortunately, all that was cleared because we’ve had a huge range of people including Javed Akhtar and others elaborating what the meaning of the song is, and ultimately those charges were just quietened down. But what also happened was that this then became the anthem here of many of our student movements. There were students of Pakistan who were singing the same song back and forth and these last two–three years, this song has become such a powerful binding force, it’s become a language of its own in that sense. What’s also magical about this song is that it’s again a song that has a long life, like ‘subh-e-azaadi’. I think Faiz sahab had that intuitive power of writing things that were rooted in your time but also caught at certain very basic, beautiful aspects of the human initiative, so that they remained relevant over such a long time. You tell us about ‘Hum dekhenge’.
SH. First, the formal part of it. Yes, the poem is rooted in Quranic imagery because it does come out from the Surah Ar-Rahman, verse 27 in which there is a promise to those that are oppressed that they will be elevated and they will overcome the oppressor. So, it is a promise made to the oppressed. My father once wrote about these elements in his poetry and he wrote that yes, the religious tradition is inherent, but evident in two forms—one is folk and the other is the path of the Sufis. The Sufis follow the humanist path and I have said many times that I am a follower of Rumi. A journalist who was needling him and wanted to embarrass him asked, but what is your religion, Faiz sahab, your exact belief? So, my father replied, same as Rumi. The journalist persisted: And what pray is Maulana Rumi’s religion? My father said, the same as mine.
He evaded this kind of description or label. The title of the poem is actually not ‘Hum Dekhenge’ but ‘wa-yabqa-wajh-o-rabbik’, translating to ‘The Face of the Lord’. In a sense, to believers it is evidence that they will rule. Those who have been disinherited shall be the ones that inherit the earth. This is kind of a common thread that you find across religions and beliefs of all kinds. So it certainly transcends where it originates from. But the interesting thing is of course that Abba wrote it during the time of the Iranian revolution but it came to Pakistan during Zia’s time because there’s a kind of overlap there. Immediately people saw that it was a clarion call—a call to arms for people. I remember when it came in a letter and I gave it to one or two people sitting there and they read it aloud, they all jumped.
Then we asked Iqbal Bano to sing it, and those were difficult times. Nobody would give us the space to share it publicly . . . it was for his birthday. Eventually we were given space at Lahore’s Alhamra Arts Council. People keep saying it was a stadium with thousands. The recording sounds as though there were thousands but there were all of about 500 people, plenty hanging from the banisters. The doors had to be opened, there were people standing all the way down the stairs. She sang her heart out, and people kept asking for encores. If you hear the original recording, you can hear people shouting slogans, ‘Inquilab Zindabad’, etc.
Iqbal Bano was overwhelmed and that was a night to remember. At 6 a.m. my phone rang and it was her. She said she hadn’t slept all night with happiness because, she said, I have never ever had such appreciation. I think she, the audience and all of us realized that this was a moment. It was a moment in which the poet was able to transcend where he was speaking from (which was the other world) and become the voice, and I think it has continued to be that. Recently, I’ve been listening to various translations and singers singing in many languages of India and other places. I.A. Rehman, who was a very close friend of my father, reminded me just last week when I sent him a recording: ‘You know, once I was with Faiz sahab and Alys and Alys said to Faiz, why don’t you translate “the Internationale”? He said oh, I will.’
So Rehman sahab said to me last week, I think this is ‘the Internationale’.
KP. In fact, what’s ironic is—we’ve heard how many of you who were attending the performance in ’86 were interrogated—and in 1990 he gets the highest civilian award in Pakistan, the Nishan-e-Imtiaz. The way our politics change. I would love you to read this poem in Urdu and we’d like you to talk a little bit about what Faiz sahab felt about the role of a poet. Before that I’d like to say, you know as you were talking, especially when you were talking about the Sufi imagery of the poem, I was reminded once again of the absolutely rich heritage we have across the subcontinent. And Faiz sahab I think was one of the people who represented various strands of that heritage because he had his training in Arabic and the Quran, he was fluent in Urdu, in Hindi, in English—the colonial influence. He had learnt his Russian in relation to his politics, and he knew his Persian. So you got strains of influence coming from right across, left, right and centre, and they all meet in this country and Faiz sahab actually represents one of the most wonderful figures in whom all these come together. There were others also. I think that’s a heritage we really need to hold on to, as well as the wonderful ways in which tradition and religious, spiritual iconography are harnessed in the field of politics, reminding you that it’s the human spirit we are talking about in politics.
Could you just read ‘Hum dekhenge’ and then tell us what Faiz thought about the role of a poet?
SH. I wish I was Iqbal Bano!
lāzim hai ki ham bhī dekheñge
vo din ki jis kā va.ada hai
jo lauh-e-azal meñ likhkhā hai
jab zulm-o-sitam ke koh-e-girāñ
ruuī kī tarah uḌ jā.eñge
ham mahkūmoñ ke pāñv-tale
jab dhartī dhaḌ-dhaḌ dhaḌkegī
aur ahl-e-hakam ke sar-ūpar
jab bijlī kaḌ-kaḌ kaḌkegī
jab arz-e-ḳhudā ke ka.abe se
sab but uThvāe jāeñge
ham ahl-e-safā mardūd-e-haram
masnad pe biThāe jāeñge
sab taaj uchhāle jāeñge
sab taḳht girāe jāeñge
bas naam rahegā allāh kā
jo ġhāeb bhī hai hāzir bhī
jo manzar bhī hai nāzir bhī
utthegā anal-haq kā naara
jo maiñ bhī huuñ aur tum bhī ho
aur raaj karegī ḳhalq-e-ḳhudā
jo maiñ bhī huuñ aur tum bhī ho
KP. This is as much yours as it is ours, it’s ours together. These are the things that will never allow us to separate. Salima, you mentioned the last talk he delivered where he was talking about the role of the poet, what it meant to be a poet and the power of the poet. I think that would be a very lovely thing to end with, so if you could just share that with us?
SH. This is something he wrote about the role of the artist/writer:
We are the offspring, in the direct line of descent of the magicians and the sorcerers and the music-makers of old. In times gone by, these ancient ancestors of ours, could make the rain come down with their incantations and with their songs, they could make the deserts bloom. And they not only implicitly believed that they had these powers, their community believed it too. This is because they found for the hopes and fears of their people, their dreams and longings, words and music that the people could not find for themselves. And by blending their collective will to a desired end, they would sometimes make the dream come true. So that is who we are, the inheritors of this magic, and the power of this magic, in big ways or small, depending on the intensity of the love our hearts possess, on the anguish we share with an anguished world, on the measure of our strength to defy what is evil and to uphold what is good. And thus as a writer or artist, even though I run no state and command no power, I am entitled to feel that I am my brother’s keeper and my brother is the whole of mankind and this is the relevance to me of peace, of freedom and the elimination of the nuclear menace.
KP. That’s such a wonderful note to end on. This also reminds me so much of that 2001 meeting when all of us were there. We will soon be ringing off in the hope that we can actually meet again in person, that these bonds can be enriched across the countries in peace and that what he said about the role of the poet will continue to enrich our lives in those ways again. I don’t know if Faiz sahab would ever have thought of how his poetry would have continued to forge these links across the countries here. I think he would have been very happy to see that even when we can’t meet, it’s his poems that continue to weave these and newer bonds across the borders. So it’s not just his Partition poems but also his poems about basic humanity, about freedom, the dignity of the spirit and about the celebration of our lives and togetherness. In a way these poems are as important as the Partition poems because they are not just talking about divisions, they are actually doing the work of bringing us together across these borders in peace, in celebration, in joy and harmony. I hope these poems will continue to inspire us. We need that inspiration so much today.